In a churchyard in the north-east English town of Morpeth lies a grave which marks the foremost ‘martyr’ of the women’s suffrage movement. Inscribed on the memorial is the suffragette slogan ‘deeds not words’ and a comment on the woman whose bones lie within: ‘a veritable princess of spirituality’. Controversial in her day, her legacy remains a powerful challenge to complacency, in the world and in the church which nurtured her…
Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913) is best known for her final suffragette action, when she stepped in front of King George V’s horse Anmer at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913, sustaining injuries that resulted in her death four days later. It was the last of many militant actions. Indeed, she was jailed on nine occasions and force-fed 49 times. There was much more to her than activism however. Formerly a teacher, she studied at both Royal Holloway College, London and Oxford University, where, though degrees were still not awarded to women, she took first-class honours. A member also of the Anglican Church League for Women’s Suffrage, her reflections on women and the Church still make sober reading.
If many, now and then, might jib at some of her actions, including stone throwing and arson as the militant campaign escalated, all would agree that she was certainly a woman of courage and an embodiment of the spirit of suffragette self-sacrifice. In June 1912, for example, after she and dozens of fellow Suffragettes had been force-fed in Holloway Prison, she threw herself down a 10 metre iron staircase: thereby, as she wrote afterwards, seeking to stop the suffering of everyone else. As a result she suffered severe head and spinal damage, causing discomfort for the remaining twelve months of her life. More delightfully, on the census night of 2 April 1911, she hid overnight in a cupboard in St. Mary Undercroft, the chapel of the Palace of Westminster so that on the census form she could legitimately give her place of residence that night as the ‘House of Commons’. The official 1911 census documents therefore state that Emily Wilding Davison was found ‘hiding in the crypt’ in the Houses of Parliament. In 1999, (see photo to the right) a commemorative plaque was set in place by the radical Labour MP Tony Benn, who wryly commented that it thus represented ‘one of the very few monuments to democracy in the whole building.’
Emily Wilding Davison’s death was a major cause celebre. Today, it is fully agreed that she was trying to draw attention to her cause, rather than commit suicide: a view confirmed by more recent analysis of newsreel (see the BBC 100th anniversary footage). Her funeral, organised by the WSPU, became a spectacle. Thousands of suffragettes accompanied the coffin and tens of thousands of people lined the streets of London.
Emily’s acts received differing responses. What is not in doubt however is that she saw this as part of her Christian commitment, as a ‘soldier of the Cross’. Her great expression of this is her essay ‘The Price of Liberty’, published posthumously in The Suffragette on 5 June 1914. This clearly identified ‘the true suffragette’ as an epitome of the determination of women to posses their own souls.’ Quoting Jesus’ words – ‘what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?’ – Emily claimed it was ‘the realisation of this ideal’ that was ‘moving the most advanced of the feminists to stand out at all costs.’ In an explicit critique of Christian tradition, she asserted that men had withheld from woman:
that which is above all temporal things, namely, the possession of a soul, the manifestation of the Godhead within… (Men) have beautified and decorated the shrine, but they have kept it empty of the divinity which gave significance to the paraphernalia of the shrine.
Such a tendency, she observed, had been especially prevalent in the early Church, when it had been seriously discussed whether women even possessed souls. ‘Sufficient doubt on the subject was raised’, said Emily, ‘to condemn the sex from that time onward to an inferior position in the community.’ To overcome this, the Price of Liberty could only be gained by being prepared to give up the most valuable things of all (Friendship, Good Report, Love, and even Life itself). For the ‘perfect Amazon’ was she who would sacrifice all:
to re-enact the tragedy of Calvary for generations yet unborn, that is the last consummate sacrifice of the Militant!
Such language has resonance with the kind of thinking of Padraig Pearse and some of those involved in the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916 and it reflects the increasingly millenarian tone of Christabel Pankhurst and others, in which (to use Andrew Rosen’s words):
achievement of the ‘perfect age’ demands of the faithful some kind of ordeal that will magically make them worthy – a difficult journey, the building of a city in the hills, the carrying out of ritual or ascetic purification, or the perpetuation of violence.
(Rise Up, Women! p.198)
Whether this, and some of actions were in any way misplaced, her striking legacy remains. Indeed, Emily’s lifelong motto was ‘Fight on! God will give the Victory!’ It is a message to remember whenever we cannot see light ahead and when our own efforts seem to end in destruction.
God of courage,
who inspired Emily Wilding Davison
to dramatic acts of witness,
we give thanks for all who have risked life and reputation
for the sake of justice and peace.
May our words and deeds be all of a piece.
Help us look always to the victory You bring
and not the immediate effects of our actions.
In the name of Jesus who gave his life to set others free, Amen.